May 21, 2016

These New Rules for Composition May Change the Way You Create Images

Rules are made to be broken, even when you're working with something as seemingly uncompromising as composition.

A visually appealing image is equal parts creativity, mathematics, and intuition. There are many concepts that teach us how to assemble elements within a frame to give it the maximum amount of aesthetic energy—the rule of thirds, symmetry, balance, etc.—but they certainly aren't the only ways to make that happen. Photographer James Allen Stewart shows us how to break the rules of composition in this interesting video:

Stewart highlights two major ways one can deviate from classic compositional rules, namely the rule of thirds:

Balance between light and dark

Consider for a moment the denseness of light and dark elements—light elements seem to "weigh" less than dark elements. This quality of "weight" does interesting things to an image. For instance, say all of the darks gather on one side of the frame; your image will feel "heavier" on that side, creating the illusion that the image is being pulled down in that direction.

The dark elements on the right side of this image seems to "weigh down" that side, giving the image an uneven feel.
Adding more light elements to the left side of the image brings balance to the composition.

This is an important concept to understand, because according to Stewart, the rule of thirds becomes less important to composition if these two elements are balanced within your image.

Direction/The Story

This is probably the most interesting concept Stewart introduces, that since we tend to "read" or "write" an image from left to right, you can compose your image like you would a story, with a beginning, middle, climax, and end. Consider the following images:

If the "climax" of your story is the woman's eyes, it occurs too early in your "story" and not only gives your viewer no where to go afterward, but it leads their eyes back to the beginning of your visual narrative.
However, when the climax occurs later, it allows your viewer to survey the image more naturally, letting the image to unfold as would a good novel.
You may agree or disagree with Stewart's assertions about composition. What works for one image may not work for others, nor for the entire film as a whole. But I think it's worth learning about because the more tools you have in your arsenal, the better equipped you'll be when composing your shots.      

Your Comment

28 Comments

Really nice tutorial and examples! As for he says "breaking" the rules, I dare say it is not quite that, once those are just the principles, which may even vary on the schools of thought that influences the artist/author. Nevertheless couldn't agree more with Stewart on all the other aspects of in the tutorial, for as I said it all fits into different principles of "design" and semiotics. Kudos!

May 22, 2016 at 12:49AM

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These are not new rules of composition at all. Techniques like balance, leading your eye etc. used old master painters long time ago. Besides not all of them used rule of thirds (on the contrary, this is a modern idea for simplyifing composition). They used something called dynamic symetry and other composition tools.

May 22, 2016 at 5:04AM

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Agreed

May 22, 2016 at 7:47AM

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John Stockton
Film maker, Editor, Photographer.
123

Nothing new under the sun.

May 22, 2016 at 8:42AM, Edited May 22, 8:42AM

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Adam Fletcher
Producer/Director
149

Dynamic symmetry sounds like something I'd love to study more :)

Thank you for taking your time to give your thoughts about this matter. I hope you will all have a great day!

May 23, 2016 at 9:07AM

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James Allen Stewart
Photographer
161

It might not be "new" in the sense that it's never existed before, but imagine how many film school grads, or newcomers to photography/film had never knows about these techniques

October 11, 2016 at 4:42AM

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Ehab Eazy Ismail
Director/D.O.P
94

i think this is more ablative technique.

May 22, 2016 at 5:30AM

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konstantinos eleftheriadis
screenwritter, film director, cinematographer
74

Maybe I'm too old school, but to me most of the images in the "Balance between light and dark" lost impact with the changes. I felt the image for this section in the article above lost 90% of it's impact and became a mishmash with the addition of light space to the left side of the image.

I did see the change in impact attained by flipping the image horizontally though. I gives me pause to consider whether this may be why some images that seemed so strong when I shot them lost impact when they "hit the page." I'll have to go back through some of these shots and see if they gain the impact back by flipping them.

May 22, 2016 at 9:35AM, Edited May 22, 9:35AM

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Some languages are written so that the reader's eyes go from right to left, but English readers read from left to right. Would this image be seen 'differently' by someone who reads a left-to-right written language?

May 22, 2016 at 11:23PM

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Vanessa Rolfe
interested amateur
81

Sounds good, feel free to send me your experiments :)

May 25, 2016 at 5:18PM

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James Allen Stewart
Photographer
161

So his "new rules" are feel it out? ok.

May 22, 2016 at 11:41AM

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Michael Markham
Actor/Filmmaker
847

cool post! Thanks for sharing

May 22, 2016 at 1:56PM, Edited May 22, 1:56PM

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Kyle Lamar
Director Producer DP
1139

Yes, please lecture me on composition while all the shots of you speaking are composed so horrendously.

May 22, 2016 at 3:32PM

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Thank you for sharing your opinion, have a great day Mr. Lodge :)

May 25, 2016 at 5:18PM

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James Allen Stewart
Photographer
161

Thank you for this video, it helped me to consider other things while i am taking pictures, cool!

May 22, 2016 at 3:52PM

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Alvaro O. De La Quintana Salas
Communicator, Film Maker, Director, Cinematographer
1

I'm glad! :)

May 25, 2016 at 5:18PM

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James Allen Stewart
Photographer
161

Rules? Again?

May 22, 2016 at 4:05PM

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David R. Falzarano
Director / Writer / Editor
1428

Excellent.
Great work.
Thanks for this game changer :)

May 23, 2016 at 3:56AM

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Sameir Ali
Director of Photography
864

You're welcome, Sameir! :)

May 25, 2016 at 5:19PM, Edited May 25, 5:19PM

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James Allen Stewart
Photographer
161

I guess his wanted to show us how powerfull his rules are, by making the greatest composition ever with this long video shot of the microphone and the dog, look how our eyes are almost not distract at all by the foreheadless men in the background :D

May 23, 2016 at 8:23AM

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AvdS
1311

Thank you for your constructive criticism, I will gain much from this comment :) Have a great day!

May 25, 2016 at 5:20PM, Edited May 25, 5:20PM

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James Allen Stewart
Photographer
161

The idea that there is a predisposition to view an image from the left to the right is interesting but not new. Additionally, there are FAR more compositional "rules-of-thumb” than the ubiquitous (and boring) “Rule of Thirds”.
Classic painters of the past have used many compositional devices to create impact and drama. For example triangles (placing the subject at the apex, Da Vinci used this a lot), spirals (placing the subject at the center of the spiral), crash-point (converging imagery lines, such as a vanishing point), curves (placing the subject at the crest of the curve), and dynamic symmetry (balancing and counter balancing image elements). These are just a few compositional devices and are certainly NOT “new”.
Look at a Vermeer painting, the window light always comes from the left and the subject is on the right. The idea that this is somehow “new” is imprudently presumptuous.

May 23, 2016 at 1:32PM, Edited May 23, 1:32PM

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I'll look into him :) Thank you!

May 25, 2016 at 5:21PM

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James Allen Stewart
Photographer
161

In my mind the first part is just another layer of Match Cuts. Where if you match Shape, color, or in this case lightness and darkness of an image. But yeah very much like positive and negative spacing.

The second part is super subjective, and I really would not recommend as it can and could have the potential to be more jarring that it would in creating a story. Though I do think its important to have shots that have a beginning middle and end, its just that if we push the left to right thing we risk alienating other cultures for the sake of what we think looks good.

I think the best way to break the rules of composition is to have your shots have a planned focus point that changes in the shot but still has continuity with the next one. Which should lead the audience to pretty much any point of the screen. It takes planning, but it works.

May 24, 2016 at 3:14AM

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Kyle Dockum
Videographer and Editor
301

Many years ago in school, I learned that the eye travels through an image in 2 ways. First, it is generally attracted to lighter areas and then explores darker areas. Second the eye generally scans an image from upper left to upper right, then lower right, then kind of lands back on the left middle of the frame. Movies like Casablanca take advantage of this eye movement in framing characters and their relative threat, or power over one another. In many ways Stewart's comments seem to be in line with that general methodology and thinking. The “rule of thirds” is all well and good, but in the end it's all about what composition best serves the story. With any shot one should ask, “How does the composition draw the viewer through the frame” and “What information does the viewer need from this image”. Just because information is placed on the thirds does not mean the shot is automatically well balanced or functionally useful as a story element. It's a bit of an oversimplification more useful for beginners. Golden mean, or Fibonacci framing has more intriguing characteristics but can still become a crutch. Actually, good comic book art is worth studying in this regard. You can find hundreds of examples of comic images carefully composed to draw the reader through a frame to carefully reveal information in a given order... all within a single page. It can be useful inspiration when trying to think outside the box regarding composition. At the very least its fun content to consider when academically dismantling composition techniques.

May 24, 2016 at 5:20PM

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Toll
Producer/ Director of Photography
83

We in the west read left to right, so this particular concept direction would likely be reversed in many Middle Eastern cultures, where reading is right to left.

That being said, my own take on the left/right issue is this. The first photo of the woman in the grass, head to the left, feels more natural or harmonious, while the other image seems more jarring. It's just my perception of course, but because the most visually-attracting feature - her face - is at the culturally-Western "beginning" (the left), it feels like almost like an effortless downhill journey to the less interesting features on the right. Flipped, it's more like an uphill visual trek to her face.

Contrasts - light vs. dark, high vs. low, big vs. small, high saturation vs. low, highly-detailed vs. little detail, left ("superior" in Western culture) vs. right ("inferior" in Western culture), etc. (In this case, superior and inferior don't refer to quality, but rather relative position or importance.)

May 27, 2016 at 3:33PM

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The dark and light example I can see working for stills, but it's hard to imagine for film and video because the aspect ratio is always going to be 16x9.

The left to right example I can understand easier. With her head on the left, my eyes stop at the face and don't continue to her body. But with her head on the right, my eyes are actually following the body to her face where they finally rest.

Others in these comments are talking about different languages. So, in the case of film and video, which most likely will have dialogue, does that mean Directors of Photographers will compose the shot according to what language and culture the film is in? haha

October 11, 2016 at 4:13AM, Edited October 11, 4:13AM

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November 15, 2016 at 3:36AM

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